Describing Music – not looking back

In the weeks and months of lockdown I have been re-listening.  As doubtless many have: revisiting pieces, albums, artists, composers that have connected deeply in the past.

I am currently in the middle of listening to the Korn albums in my collection, while reading an out-of-date monograph on Stravinsky – picked up in a second-hand booksellers at a National Trust property within the last year, on a whim.

I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on Korn, fancying myself perfectly placed to take down contemporaneous misadventures into “rock music” analysis.  In the process I was generously heard by Julian Johnson, my supervisor (now continuing his good work at Royal Holloway) as I blew in once a fortnight to give tenuous updates to by nebulous thinking.  I still have vivid memories of allowing myself a celebratory relief-pint on the walk back from St Anne’s college, having blustered my way through a supervision without having really come up with anything concrete to say.

Dr. Johnson would listen patiently to my loose pontifications on the music – heavily buttressed by it’s lyrical and auxiliary visual/branded context.  I would flinch describing the child abuse narratives paraded viscerally in the songs and he would give feedback as if I were discussing a Haydn String Quartet.

My 20-year-old self would be full of righteous fire citing analyses of the Beatles et al by scholars decades before as having missed the point of the music.  I could not abide that they ignored the reception-history, the ethnomusicological angle that would be the only reason anyone would come to love this music in the first place.  Other academics spoke about “scenes” and “authenticity” in a way that was tantalisingly close but at the same time not recognisable to a fan (granted: a self-appointedly knowledgeable fan like me).  No doubt in the intervening 16 years since I left the academic study of music things have improved exponentially.

My Stravinsky reading (hardly cutting edge) gives me a real feeling of connection.  Observe this passage discussing Les Noces, Stravinsky’s operatic tableaux of a wedding, revered by Bernstein in his Harvard lectures.

It isolates the musical reason for it being a special work, then flatly avoids discussing it only to refer it back to Bach.  This work (and if you believed in such things one can imagine Stravinsky being distantly amused from beyond the grave) seems to have got its canon membership roundly approved, yet can only be discussed by proxy in its connection to the musical past that we have all studied.  I’m no great fan of Stravinsky’s neo-Classical works, but in light of the critical reception of those he must be guffawing and thumping the poker table at this.

Until we find a way of describing music that isn’t completely bound up with comparing it to other music we already (or are already supposed/expected to) know then we are destined to fan the flames of our own destruction through historical annex.

I recently had a validating exchange on social media, responding to BBC introducing’s twitter shout-out to post a song of yours in a thread and comment on someone else’s post.  It was an internet utopian moment – ordinary people connecting with others through common interest and building each other up.  It took me a few listens to find a post I felt compelled to comment on.  That artist dutifully reciprocated by immediately comparing my music to two other established artists, neither of whom I had listened to.

I felt heard and appreciated, but also deflated.

How come my music, carefully conceived and executed, could be mirrored back to me, positively, as music I had not yet accessed.  Does that mean I did a fluke?  Happened to write something that sounded like somebody else in a good way?  Does it mean that whatever I write will only ever be heard through filters of established categories?

Of course this is all very natural.  And complimentary.  BUT I feel this illustrates a deep language handicap.  On one level music is awkward to describe in words, so one must expect a certain ham-fistedness, but on the deeper level – can we only hear it through comparison?  Can’t we hear something and just feel/know/articulate what it is?

If you write a song, and someone with good intentions says it sounds a bit like Tom Petty, but you’ve never listened to Tom Petty then what are you to do with that?  Say thank you? Apologise?  Does that implore you to go and find out what is seminal, archetypal Tom Petty and listen to it to find out what it was that you accidentally did?

As time wears on there will be fewer of us with a lexical knowledge of musical canons – be they popular, classical, “indie” or whatever.  Streaming culture means that we are less likely to spend time coming to intimately “know” a particular artist’s music.  If comparison is our only mode of discussion, we will be surrendering the understanding/explanation/articulation of what the music does to us to an ever-shrinking pool of music library curates.  And their input will always be invaluable.  But it would be much better if we took a deliberate step towards writing critically about music on its own terms – comparing and making links, of course – but making a new, fresh, clear and present start in music criticism.

I will endeavour to do my part.

About mdhmusic is the home of recording artist MDH (Michael Humphrey) and the hub for a range of musical endeavours offered by MDH that you may be interested in. MDH writes, arranges, directs, produces, composes and performs – check out for more info.
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